The city of Georgetown on Penang feels like Asia’s version of hipster, kind of like Portland without the rain. A hint of Muslim, a pinch of southern China and a dash of Indian blended with a local population and British and Dutch colonists made it worth writing home about. Fusion is everywhere, owing to the cultural confluence of the local Malay population and first, the early traders from southern India and southern China marrying local women in the 15th -17th centuries, followed by mass emigration at around the turn of the last century of southeastern Chinese people looking for work. Rounding out the city you’ll find cafes of every size and color serving up fantastic coffee, and many times, three or four on a single block. This was my version of heaven.
Due to this fusion of cultures, Penang is known as one of the food capitals of Asia, and its streets are lined with vendors of various nibbles. It’s the only place we’ve been that to me rivals Bangkok for street food. To help celebrate our arrival, Georgetown was putting on the 16-day Penang International Food Festival, beginning the day of our arrival. What luck! We went on four different nights, but the first weekend highlighted the street food and was the best.
Even our host in Georgetown got into the act, taking us around to a few of his favorite food stalls and then on another day drove us into the hills looking for various strange and uncomely fruits. The final prize came to fruition when Denise was able to grab hold of her first durian since our first trip to Bangkok, a horrible smelling fruit that I was generally unable to get past. I would call this a weaponized fruit, and with one look and smell dear reader, you too would agree! Nevermind if you’ve never heard of some or all of these fruits; mangosteen, durian, cempedak. Denise was in wild heaven. “Yucky,” I would protest. Undeterred by my particular tastes, Denise would grin ear to ear as another fruit’s juice dribbled off her chin, again, and exclaim “Your loss”! Indeed! I wrinkled my nose and nibbled around the edges, finding one durian I could eat without wanting to wretch (the “D101” variety), but mostly left the fruit tasting to Denise, who admitted she’s becoming a bit addicted to durian.
Around the city, or at least the city center which is labeled as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site, you’ll find fabulously painted murals and iron work made into little scenes whereby you learn a little history about life on that particular corner or street. But the Chinese shophouses are the real stars of the city. These 100+ year old buildings that had a shop below and a house above are everywhere. Most of the commerce still takes place throughout the old town area in the old shophouses. You can read more about this here if you’re interested. Lastly there were the clan jetties jutting out into the Malacca Strait, six in all, and each the domain of a particular Chinese clan that the inhabitants belonged to, the community of which helped them survive the new environment these poor immigrants found themselves in. These were all characterized by the old traditions and customs of the time and each house had its own temple for prayer and burning of candles.
We took a few days break from Penang in order to quickly visit Kuala Lumpur. Our sentiment for large cities had reached its limits and therefore could only afford the shortest of intervals for this one. While there, we (what else?) devoured the cuisine, and this time even took a moment to visit the national museum and then took a quick look at the famous Petronas towers which were for a few short years the largest building(s) in the world when completed in 1999. Here we even got caught up in our monsoonal downpour and had to wait it out under cover until it let up enough for us to get back to our hotel.
We have mixed feelings, but all good things must come to an end and with that, and after what will be eighteen months of travel, we finally have a confirmed completion date. After touring through our last country, Vietnam, and one final stop in Thailand, we will fly home on June third, when Seattle, with luck, will be on the sunny side of the world.